To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Burke and Wills historic expedition, Dr Jonathan King will lead a group of environmentalists in retracing the steps of Burke and Wills with a view to examining changes in the environment in the time since the pioneers set off on their ill-fated journey

Government Shows its support

Government Shows its support
Our government shows its support of the 2010 environmental expedition

Friday, July 2, 2010

Burke and Wills 2010 - Environment Expedition Itinerary and Exec Summary

Click on the links

Itinerary (Summary)

Itinerary (Detailed)

Executive Summary

For any further information, please contact me at


Support from our government and the Aboriginal community

As mentioned in my previous post, I am delighted to have received the support of Don Rowlands, Senior Indigenous Ranger - Marula Aboriginal Corporation Birdsville (letter appears in previous post).

It is also heartening to receive letters of support from all levels of our country's government.

Click on the link to see the letters

The Hon. Peter Garrett

The Premier of Queensland - Anna Bligh

The Premier of NSW - Kristina Keneally

Many thanks to you all,

In the footsteps of Burke and Wills - Aug 21 2010

150 years ago - Burke and Wills were the first to cross the continent NOW They are doing their bit for the environment !

Yes, in 1860 Burke and Wills might have blazed a trail across Australia opening up the outback for settlement by pastorilists, cattlemen, farmers and miners but now 150 years later they are lending their famous – household - names to repairing the damage done to the outback by our overuse of this land.

In fact the Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition is using the household names of these great explorers and their 150th anniversary to mount a fact-finding tour of the outback to find out from local stakeholders what the environmental problems are and what needs to be done to repair any environmental damage they may have been done.


These environmental issues that stretch from Melbourne to the Gulf could include: toxic waste dumps, polluted creeks and rivers, foreign weeds displacing native grasses, excessive tree felling, soil erosion, salination, rabbit plagues, feral goats, wild camels, destructive cane toads, and the environmental problems caused by drought, excessive rains and floods etc etc


The Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition is inspired by the wonderful poem that tells us so much about the unpredictable climate conditions in Australia by the twentieth century poet Dorothea Mackellar(1885 –1968)

The love of field and coppice,
of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance, brown streams and soft, dim skies-
I know but cannot share it, my love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror- the wide brown land for me!

The stark white ring-barked forests, all tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains, the hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops, and ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us we see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather, and we can bless again
The drumming of an army, the steady soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country! Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine she pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks, watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness that thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country, a wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her, you will not understand -
Though earth holds many splendours, wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly.


Our aim is to help this beautiful country recover from the problems created over the last 150 years and also survive the challenges of climate change – and we hope you can help us by volunteering you ideas, energy and resources.


But this time we want Aboriginal people to lead us, tell us about their outback so we can learn from them before it is too late; because of the greatest ironies of the epic 1860 Burke and Wills expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria was the utter contempt with which the explorers regarded the Aborigines, without whom they could not have reached their destination nor survived as long as they did in the inhospitable outback.

The explorers may have distrusted ''the blacks'', shot at them and spurned offers of friendship, but the Aborigines kept coming back to help them. Biting the hand of friendship almost to the last, Wills described these tribes as "mean-spirited and contemptible in every respect". Admittedly he changed his tune when the Aborigines were his only source of food while he was dying of malnutrition, but even then he wrote: "I suppose this will end in our having to live like the blacks for a few months."

In the end, by repeatedly refusing to reframe their attitudes towards Aborigines, the explorers sealed their own fate. Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills died of malnutrition beside Cooper Creek in this Aboriginal land of plenty where the Yandruwandha people had lived for thousands of years. Only one member of the party, John King, who joined the Aborigines, survived to tell the tale.

Yet 150 years later, hospitable Aboriginal tribal elders and leaders along that 1860 track are getting ready to roll out the red carpet again - this time to welcome a 2010 expedition retracing the route of Burke and Wills for an environmental audit.

Following the same timetable and route, this fact-finding Environmental Expedition is to leave Melbourne's Royal Park on August 21 2010, aiming to reach the Gulf by February 11 – if weather conditions, rain, floods and finances allow us to. That is the end of the actual Environmental audit but the party may then return to Cooper Creek by April 21, 150 years to the day after Burke's party arrived.

In 1860, the explorers were asked to focus on land and water - with Burke commissioned to find land and water that could be exploited by pastorilists In 2010 this Environmental Expedition aims to assess the damage to that land and water after 150 years of use, and to work out ways to repair that damage. Some ‘lush pastures’ are now arid ground and some rivers Burke had to swim across are often now bone dry.

Under the executive leadership of patron, actor and environmentalist Jack Thompson, specialist environmentalists using detailed maps provided by Hema Maps will try to follow the 1860 route and timetable more or less travelling in two four-wheel-drive vehicles one provided by Hema Maps (Nissan Patrol) the other by adventurer, bushman and still photographer Steve Broomhall (Nissan Navara)


The Environmental Expedition also plans to work with specialists from the Australian Conservation Foundation who will explain environmental issues along the rack and recommend solutions. The EE has also asked Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett for financial help through his Caring for our Country program.

The 22-week expedition is being organised into eleven fortnightly legs. The size of the expedition will depend on what funding the organisers are able to raise from government and corporate sponsors.

A journal documenting the environmental changes and issues, along with the documentary film record of interviews and problems, will be presented to federal and state governments.


This time, however, aware of the damage Europeans have done along the track since 1860, compared to the original Aboriginal inhabitants Thompson and his expedition will be seeking the advice of Indigenous leaders. Expedition adviser and Reconciliation Australia co-chairman Professor Mick Dodson says this expedition will fare well if it "seeks the expertise, leadership and assistance of the many indigenous groups already working on environmental issues along the track".

As Menindee-based Aboriginal elder ''Aunty'' Beryl Carmichael of the Nyampa people told me during a recent reconnaissance trip: "We will give you a traditional welcome like you never had, with dancing and singing in our language. We will welcome you with open arms and embrace you all. We've got a lot of environmental problems up here, and if you are coming to help us repair the damage, we will work shoulder to shoulder with you because we have a lot of work to do."

Thompson and his team will also be going out of their way to consult local indigenous rangers such as Birdsville's Don Rowland, manager of Simpson Desert National Park, who is already engaged in repairing some of the damage and is happy to share his inherited indigenous knowledge. Burke and Wills would have survived if they had allowed Aboriginals like Don Rowlands helping them as his letter below confirms.

Don Rowlands letter of support:


This generous approach of the Aborigines recalls the unqualified help provided by tribes along the track in 1860. According to Wills, the main journal keeper, writing in February 1861, Aborigines often offered directions on the best route to the Gulf. "We passed three blacks, who, as is universally their custom, pointed out to us, unasked, the best way ahead."

Aborigines also fed the dying explorers on two consecutive days in April 1861 when they returned from the Gulf. "As we were about to start this morning,'' wrote Wills, ''some blacks came by, from whom we were fortunate enough to get about 12 pounds [five kilograms] of fish." Next day: "We had scarcely finished breakfast, when our friends the blacks, from whom we had obtained the fish, made their appearance with a few more and seemed inclined to go with us and keep up the supply." Later, "they also intimated that if we would go to their camp we could have any quantity of nardoo [a plant that could be ground with stones and eaten as a paste] and fish".

This was not all. In May 1861 Wills reported: "As I was about to pass the blacks' encampment they invited me to stay; I did so and was even more hospitably entertained than before, being on this occasion, offered a share of a gunyah [shelter] and supplied with plenty of fish and nardoo, as well as a couple of nice fat rats - the latter found most delicious; they were baked in their skins."

The basic food staple nardoo kept the explorers alive for months, and could have sustained them indefinitely - had they learnt how to prepare it so it did not cause beriberi (a deficiency of thiamine, vitamin B1), from which they died. Moreover, as Burke noted on December 20, 1860, north of Cooper Creek: "We made it to a creek where we found a great many natives; they presented us with fish, and offered us their women."

Although Burke rejected the offer of female companionship, the Aborigines, undeterred by this puzzling response, invited them to dance in corroborees around the campfire. As Wills wrote: "A large tribe of blacks came pestering us to go to their camp and have a dance, which we declined."

Apart from food, the Aborigines repeatedly offered the stricken explorers accommodation in their camps, setting aside gunyahs, and when survivor John King was the last man standing they assigned him to a sub-group of three men in the Yandruwandha tribe with whom he shared the same gunyah. Later still, they gave King a Yandruwandha woman, Carrawaw (or Karrawa), from the eaglehawk totem group as a girlfriend, or ngumbu, with whom he had a daughter known as "Yellow Alice", or "Miss King", born in 1862.

Without the generous attention they received, Burke and Wills would never have made it to the Gulf or back to the Cooper. As it was, they were lucky to get through Queensland's Selwyn Range as some young warriors who wanted to kill them were only stopped by tribal elders who overruled the youngsters and demanded safe passage for the ''whitefellas''.

Even though Aborigines had killed previous explorers and attacked Burke's rival, John McDouall Stuart, that year, Burke and Wills did not realise the dangers. Wills wrote: "They are troublesome and nothing but the threat to shoot them will keep them away; they are however, easily frightened, and although fine-looking men, decidedly not of warlike disposition."

Yet had the Aborigines decided to spear these invaders, the naive explorers could have been killed in an instant. The South Australian Register dated November 26, 1861, even reported a grisly outback discovery of "the bones of white men having been killed and partly eaten".

Burke and Wills spent the last few days before they died seeking Aboriginal help, as Wills wrote on June 29, 1861, just before he died. "We are going up the creek to look for the blacks, it is now our only chance of being saved from starvation."

When Burke died at the end of June, reported King, "on seeing his remains the whole party wept bitterly, and covered his bones with bushes". But right to the end Burke had shot at Aborigines if they came near his camp uninvited or stole items as small as an oil cloth. The explorers were, of course, worried Aborigines would steal food or equipment essential to their survival. Most of all, however, these mid-19th century explorers were conditioned by the shared cultural perception of the day that Aborigines were ''ignorant and godless savages''.

So they failed to learn the language, and unlike Augustus Gregory and Ludwig Leichhardt, did not ask Aborigines for information about their planned route or water supplies along the way. Nor did they engage Aboriginal guides as had Matthew Flinders and Phillip Parker King, who both hired Bungaree to take them around the Australian coast in the earlier part of the same century.

The 2010 expedition will encounter very different conditions - and difficulties. In 1861, Burke and Wills' choices ultimately left them at the mercy of a harsh landscape. The new expedition will plot a landscape in retreat - and the thwarted efforts of traditional owners to reclaim it.

"Oh, we have so many environmental problems,'' Aboriginal elder Beryl Carmichael says. ''The water is disappearing from the rivers down here, as greedy people take it out further upstream. Apart from rare wet seasons our Menindee lakes are drying up. Mining companies are destroying the topsoil with their growing network of roads, undermining the vegetation and desecrating our spiritual connections with our land.''Nevertheless, she promises to teach members of the expedition about the land and its precious water and how to preserve the environment for the next generation.

Further up the track, park manager Rowland told our visiting environmental expedition scout Steve Broomhall that he would help our team review myriad environmental problems he is dealing with and report back to government on what needs to be done to preserve this fragile region.

So although the Environmental Expedition may have its work cut out, it should be able to make a worthwhile study of the environmental issues along that 1860 track. . And it will have a greater chance of success because this time not only will the expedition be consulting indigenous Australians to begin with, but the environmentalists will be guided by the region's original inhabitants from start to finish - hopefully with a very different outcome to 1860.


As Victorians get set to mark the 150th anniversary of the epic Burke and Wills Expedition, a casual observer could be forgiven for asking why anybody would want to remember – let alone commemorate - a disastrous outback expedition on which the two leaders died unnecessarily because of a string of mistakes all of which could have been avoided.


Yet like the misadventure at Gallipoli the triumph and tragedy of the Burke and Wills saga seems to grow stronger as it recedes further into the past. Both events were ill-conceived missions of questionable value, riddled with mistakes, involving venturing into unknown and poorly researched territory, achieving very little, costing too many lives and generating scandals, public outcry and investigations. Yet both enjoy a tightening grip on the hearts of our young nation which seems more interested in losing itself in gallant historical failures than celebrating spectacular successes.

There is a very fine line between bravery and stupidity. And when high profile heroes die through stupidity official observers often mask their fatal mistakes by presenting their deaths as gallant, glorious even mythical; blinding present and future generations to the harsh reality and tempting fate. For successive generations could make the same mistakes going into un-winnable battles like Afghanistan on far-flung shores under foreign leadership, or venturing foolishly into the vast waterless deserts of the Australian outback unprepared.

This is why it is so important to remember - but for the right reasons. By revisiting the harsh realities for each new generation we can separate truth from fiction and explode unfounded myths. Any SWAT analysis presenting a balance sheet will certainly confirm Burke and Wills actually achieved a great deal on their mission as well as failing miserably.


Commissioned to cross the continent from south to north, searching for useable land and water, they set out from Royal Park on 20 August 1860. Their leader Robert O’ Hara Burke, 39 was a Beechworth police officer recently migrated from Ireland, single, but in love with a 16 year actor Julia Matthews (to whom he had proposed in vain) performing in a comic drama at the Princess Theatre called Handy Andy. His deputy William Wills, 25, a recent migrant from Devon was a surveyor at the Melbourne observatory.

In his colourful farewell speech covered by The Age ( established just six years earlier) Burke proclaimed., “No expedition has ever started under such favourable circumstances at this. The people, the government, the committee all have done heartily what they could do. It is now our turn; and we shall never do well till we justify what you have done by showing you what we can do”.

Burke’s party of 19 men comprised medical doctors, artists, geologists, naturalists, botanists, cooks and German scientists, Afghan camel drivers and Hindu sepoys. Their wagons, horses, and camels were hopelessly overloaded with unnecessary supplies and took three slow months to reach Menindee, via Swan Hill. On 19 October Burke - impatient to get to the next base at Coopers Creek - split up the party hurrying ahead with eleven men. He appointed William Wright who he met at the Menindee pub, to lead the support party with the main supplies.

The advance party reached Coopers Creek in three weeks but waited in vain for William Wright who refused to leave Menindie as he had not be paid nor received written confirmation from Royal Society of Victoria’s Exploration Committee. On 16 December the impatient Burke set off on “a dash for the gulf” leaving William Brahe in charge of Coopers Creek asking him verbally to wait just three months after which Burke would be dead. Alarmed at such bravado Wills secretly begged Brahe to wait four months. Burke set off with Wills, Charles Gray and John King, who looked after the camels, with six camels and one horse heroically reaching the Gulf on 11 February – two months into Burke’s allocated three months – before turning around and dashing or rather dragging themselves back south.

Exhausted having walked most of the way on reduced rations they lost Gray, their horse and some camels yet made it back to Coopers Creek on 21 April – four months and four days after leaving. Unbelievably the same day Brahe had given up returning south a few hours earlier. Brahe had left food buried in a trunk under a tree he marked DIG but that did not last and by the end of June 1861 both Wills and Burke died of malnutrition nearby. Having second thoughts Brahe had returned not long after but because Burke had reburied the trunk without leaving a message Brahe did not know he was dying nearby. King befriended Aboriginal tribes who cared for him until he was rescued on 15 September returning to Melbourne where he told a disbelieving city the terrible truth.


Triumphant and tragic through it was on a SWAT analysis they nevertheless were first explorers to cross the continent; demonstrated great courage and physical endurance; Wills successfully navigated through vast uncharted deserts; they avoided attacks by Aboriginals who killed other explorers; their scientists took observations, collected samples, wrote journals and reports adding significantly to scientific knowledge; expedition artists recorded Aboriginal life and they opened up the outback for pastoral use.

Conversely the RSV’s Exploration Committee had selected the wrong man for the job as Burke had never left the settled districts, could not navigate by day nor get directions from the southern cross by night, never kept a regular journal, failed to put orders in writing or leave messages; split up his party; appointed unknown deputies; underestimated the time to Coopers Creek and back and necessary supplies; failed to find bush tucker, catch fish, shoot game or accept supplies offered by kind Aborigines who he shot at.

It may all sound unworthy of such mythical heroes but these are the mistakes we can learn from. The Japanese, and Russians may whitewash unsavoury military history but we can dignify the sacrifice of Burke and Wills by confronting mistakes and remembering them for the right reasons for the benefit of new generations.


More importantly for today’s environmental crisis we can also learn from the mistakes we have made exploiting that useable land and water discovered by Burke and Wills.

Which is why the privately funded group of committee environemtalists is planning an Environmental Expedition under the patronage of Jack Thompson – who played Burke in the 1985 classic “Burke & Wills” - along the 1860 track to report on and recommend remedies for damage inflicted over the last 150 years. Working with Indigenous Rangers, environmentalists and volunteers along the track this expedition will investigate and highlight over grazing, salination, erosion, exhausted and/or contaminated water sources, feral weeds, camels, cane toads etc.

These issues are as pressing today as exploration was in 1860 and the RSV believes this is an appropriate way of remembering Burke and Wills, honouring the indigenous supporters and the our fragile outback. Supported in principle by Indigenous Leaders, the Minister for the Environment, relevant state premiers and the Australian Conservation Foundation this expedition provides a timely opportunity to put something back after 150 years of mistakes.

About Me

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Inspired by his passion for history Dr. King is an extraordinary Australian who has led an extraordinary life. An award-winning author of 25 books on Australian History, he has written thousands of articles for newspaper and magazines, produced and presented more than 20 TV documentary films, appeared on hundreds of tv shows and acted as resident historian on many radio programs. Fighting for the environment since 1988 he helped fund and organize the first national summit of the Australian Conservation Foundation, worked for the United Nations's Environment Program and as director of Sting's Amazon Rainforest Foundation. But Perhaps Dr. King's greatest achievements have been his award-winning live re-enactments of great historical events, including most famously, the privately-funded 1988 Australian bicentennial re-enactment of the First Fleet -Australia's largest ever live spectator event (est audience 3 mill). In 1988 he was presented with Australian of the Year Award (Victorian division) and in in 1989 the Australian Achiever Award by the Prime Minister Bob Hawke for his fleet which was also voted best event of the Bicentennial Celebrations. www.jonathanking.com.au